Renaissance Table Manners

How should one behave at parties or dinners, in the company of friends and relatives? Every society has its list of do’s and don’ts, including in Renaissance Italy. One of the most popular books from the 16th century was Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior (Il Galateo, overo de ‘costume), written by Giovanni della Casa – it would become a bestselling guide to proper etiquette, including how to have proper table manners, dress well and be witty in conversation.

renaissance table manners - The Wedding Banquet by Bottacelli

Giovanni was a Florentine scholar and diplomat who spent most of his life travelling and working around Italy. During his lifetime he was regarded as a great poet and writer, but the Galateo was first published in 1558, two years after Giovanni died. He had written this work for a young nephew in Florence. His family decided it to have it published and it soon became a bestseller – within a couple of years publishers throughout Italy were producing copies, and during the 16th century translations were made into English, French, Spanish, German and Latin.

Renaissance Italy was very interested in proper etiquette – among the other famous works of this era was Baldasarre Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier. While Castiglione wrote his book for the nobleman who was at court, Giovanni della Casa made this book for everyone – he wanted to make sure that a person knew all the small things that one should do to be seen as respectable. He explains why you should not get drunk, blow your nose into your dinner napkin, or bore others by talking about your dreams. His writing is often funny, as Giovanni adds stories of people behaving like fools.

The Galateo includes some sections on behaviour around the dinner table. Here is some of his advice:

  • “It is not polite, while at the table, to scratch your head or somewhere else. A man should also, as much as possible, avoid spitting, but if he must, he should do it discreetly.”
  • “Nor should one gnaw or chew such that you hear the sound or noises, since there is a difference between the eating of men and pigs. We must also be careful not to gobble up our food and occasion a hiccup or some other unpleasant result, as happens with people who hurry and so gasp for air or breathe so heavily that they annoy their companions.”
  • “Also, you myst not do anything to proclaim how greatly you are enjoying the food and wine, for this is the habit of tavern-keepers. To encourage those who are are at the table with you with words such as “Are you not eating this morning,” or “Is there nothing that you like,” or “Taste some of this” in my opinion is not laudable, even though the majority of people do it. Though in doing so they show concern for their guest, very often they are also the very reason why he eats so sparingly, for it will seem to him that he is being observed and so he is embarrassed.”
  •  “It is inappropriate, I do believe, to offer something from one’s own plate, unless the person who is presenting it is of a much more exalted rank, whereby the person receiving it will consider this an honor. Between men of equal rank, it will seem the person offering somehow or other holds himself superior to the one receiving, and sometimes the guest may not even like to eat what was offered. Not to mention this shows that the banquet does not have sufficient dishes and that they are not evenly distributed, for one person has too much and another not enough, and this could humiliate the lord of the house. Nevertheless, in this matter we must do what is done,  and not what should be done, for it is better to blunder with others than be good alone. But whatever the case may be, you must not refuse what is brought to you, as it will seem that you either despise or rebuke the man who has brought it.”
  • “Also inappropriate is the habit of putting one’s nose over the glass of wine someone else is drinking or on top of the food others must eat, so as to smell it. Besides, I would not want someone sniff even what he himself has to drink or to eat; the reason is that from his nose could fall those things that men find disgusting, even though this is perhaps unlikely. Nor would I recommend that you offer your glass of wine to someone after you have had your lips to it and sipped, unless it were to someone more intimate than a friend. And even worse should you offer a pear or other fruit from which you have taken a bite. And don’t be looking like you consider the things discussed above trivial and of small moment, for even light blows, if they are many, can kill.”

galateoThe Galateo also includes instructions for how to talk. Under a section called The Don’ts of Conversation, Giovanni writes, “in conversation one can sin in many and various ways, starting with choice of subject: it should be neither frivolous nor vile. Listeners will not pay attention or take pleasure in it, but they will scorn the talk and the talker both. Also, one must not pick a theme too subtle or too arcane, for it is exhausting to hear. Instead, one must really diligently select a topic so that no will turn red or feel ashamed. Not should you talk about something dirty, even though it could be pretty amusing to hear, for decent people should try to please others only with respectable subjects.”

When tellings jokes, he adds, “one should not, for the sake of making someone laugh, say obscene words or indulge in such vile or perverse acts as distorting one’s face and eyes or gesticulating like a dope, for no one should debase himself in order to amuse others. This is the habit not of a gentleman but of slapstick actors and professional buffoons. So don’t imitate that vulgar, plebeian language of Dioneo: ‘Monna Aldruda, come, lift up your tail.’ Nor act like a lunatic or a numbskull, but if possible say at the proper time something clever and new, something no one else has thought of,  or else keep quiet.”

A new translation of Galateo or, The Rules of Polite Behavior has been done by M.F. Rusnak. You can read a review of this book by Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) in the New York Times.

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